You’ve heard the one about the debut album. A band, or solo artist, works their whole life for that first record. They put everything they have into – every great idea, melody, goal, connection, whatever. And then, for the rest of their career, they end up either chasing the greatness of that first work – or cashing it in.
In the case of any truly great artist, the debut is usually just the beginning. It may always be the best work or it may not, but there’s great, great work that follows. An example would be Julian Casablancas and the first Strokes record, Is This It. A disc so great that it’s more or less common knowledge that no one involved will ever do anything better (even though both Julian and Albert have come close).
This supposed Debut Rule rarely applies to hip-hop artists. In that genre, the quality of the material released usually has everything to do with drive, connections and vision. But then we have Illmatic, the debut record from Queens emcee Nas. Released in 1994 by a 21-year-old emcee (who wrote most of the lyrics as a teen), Illmatic is often considered to be one of the all-time great hip-hop albums. To me, it is THE all-time great hip-hop record. And enduring classic that, vocally, will probably never be topped.
Nine perfect songs and an intro. Some of the best beats ever made by some of the best producers who have ever worked in the genre (Premier, L.E.S., Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip). The most perfect hip-hop record ever and one of the most cinematic, visual collections of music I’ve ever heard. Like “The Wire,” David Simon’s HBO series that exposed the world to the violent, corrupt state of Baltimore, or Boyz N tha Hood, John Singleton’s 1991 South Central LA-set feature that exposed the world to the unique 90s culture in LA, Illmatic perfectly documented a time and a place that most of the world didn’t know much about – the Queensbridge Projects.
And while Nas’ second record, 1996′s It Was Written, stands as one of the best hip-hop records of the 90s, it didn’t come near the perfection of Illmatic. And, since then, Nas hasn’t released an album that anyone would dare call a classic. His nine proper studio records since those first two run the range. Some are maybe half great and others feature one, maybe two, good songs. The problem is that, all along, Nas really thinks that he’s been releasing classics. He doesn’t realize that his taste in beats no longer reflects the vision of a sound auteur. Many of his tracks feel desperate to be pop hits and quite a few come off as flat out lazy.
All that said, when Nas really wants to bring it – when he finds little pieces of that original hunger to be great – he still totally can. Absolutely. Here and there, through the years, he’s reminded us how great he is with songs and verses that are so memorable that his name has never left the Best Emcee Alive conversation. And thus the point of this post. With Nas’ new record, Life Is Good, on the horizon, I can feel my ears perking one again. The inclusion of five beats from the genre’s best current producer, No I.D., helps the hype. As of this past weekend I had already heard three tracks from the record – “Accident Murderers,” “The Don” and new classic “Daughters.” Four if you count the great “Nasty,” released as a single last year and planned as a Life Is Good bonus track*.
And then, yesterday, I heard the new track, “Loco-Motive.” Featuring the legendary Large Professor and produced once again by No I.D.**, “Loco” is another new Nas classic. And a major one at that. A track that will probably be involved in some Hip-Hop Song of the Year conversations come December. (That is, if people still have those conversations.)
What I’m getting at is this: Nas might finally have a third great record in Life Is Good. It took forever, and there were plenty of teases along the way, but it looks like Life Is Good might finally be what longtime Nas fans have been waiting for now for over a decade. The verses are solid and, so far, the beats match. There are a few issues***, sure, but we’ll worry about those if and when we need to.
In the meantime, we figured we’d put together a YouTube playlist for you ZeCatters out there. The 10 best tracks since the first two albums (but not including the new, excellent, cuts). A great listen totally worthy of the man’s legacy. Maybe you know all these songs already, maybe you don’t. Maybe you should just listen to them anyhow.
*Another Nas mistake. Why would you not put a classic song like “Nasty” on your tracklist if you had it just laying around? And why not also include “Ghetto Dreams,” a song featuring Nas from last year’s excellent Common album? Add those two to the other excellent four songs we’ve already heard and you have six SOLID new tracks – making Life Is Good arguably your best offering since Illmatic. Bonus tracks? Huh! Dumbo! Ya facts is backwards.
**Why, if all your best songs are produced by one guy (No I.D.), would you not just have the guy do your whole record? Imagine a Nas/No I.D. disc if No I.D. could continue this hot streak. Dang.
***Too many guests. Too many producers. Too many songs. Low quality of guests, too! And that title? And the back cover? So no, we don’t think Life Is Good will be a classic. It’ll be the best since It Was Written, most likely, but not the No I.D.-produced perfection we’re all going to be dreaming of.